Why I’m Glad We Marched and Wish We Hadn’t

On July 9, a handful of our staff and members participated in the Black Lives Matter march in Augusta. I’m glad they did and wish they hadn’t.

Carl Ellis: On one hand, ‘black lives matter’ (all lower case, ‘blm’) is a truth. This truth encompasses the healthy concern for matters that touch black lives—criminal justice reform, racial justice, just policing, better community relations, crime reduction, urban homicide rates, discipleship, mass incarceration, abortion rates, poverty reduction, education, employment, ethnic reconciliation, accurate representation of our history, etc. On the other hand, ‘Black Lives Matter’ (capitalized, ‘BLM’) is an ideology with clearly stated goals and presuppositions. I would go so far to say that the original ‘BLM’ ideology, which started as a rally cry and grew into an entity, has given rise to a cult with its own doctrines and demands for faith. It now extends beyond the original entity, blending with other belief systems in a syncretistic manner as it exports its own iconography, its own language, and its own heroes for veneration.

 

On July 9, a handful of our staff and members participated in the Black Lives Matter march in Augusta. I’m glad they did and wish they hadn’t.

I wish they hadn’t marched because of the anger and the rhetoric present in the protesters. Though we are very well connected in the African-American community, none of our participants saw anyone they knew. Most of the BLM protesters appeared to be outsiders. That observation is confirmed by another major leader in our community who also happens to be African-American.

They also noted that no mention was made of the five police officers murdered in Dallas while protecting Black Lives Matter marchers. Though the Dallas tragedy occurred two days before the Augusta march, only two balloons were released in a solemn remembrance of the recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

I’m glad we marched partly because a large number of young African-American men and women in our congregation have asked our church leadership for direction on how to enter into the raging debate over the much-publicized deaths of young black men like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, along with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott and others at the hands of police officers.

Since Ferguson, I have felt the burden as senior pastor to provide some biblical and theological guidance. Frankly, I’ve been overwhelmed. Every time I sit down to write something insightful, another tragedy occurs and I feel like I must figure out how to address that situation too. While considering what to say about Philando Castille and Alton Sterling’s death, I heard the news from Dallas. While writing about Dallas, I watched the report of a gunman dressed like a Ninja who lured in and slaughtered three officers in Baton Rouge. The shooter was black, two of the officers were white, the third officer was black. Today as I am preparing finally to publish, I’m forced to wrestle with the latest shootings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte. Though BLM was represented at the center of the September 20 and 21 riots in Charlotte, the fact that the police officer who shot Scott, Charlotte’s police chief and mayor are black make it impossible to explain the tensions only in terms of race. How does all of that fit together? I’m not sure, but all of that is to say that I share my parishioners’ confusion. It is not just young black men and women who are confused about this disturbing era we are in—we are all confused.

My black and white pastoral colleagues who marched with their young African-American parishioners on Saturday seemed to have these overriding thoughts, “These young men are confused. They are hurting. They are scared. And they are showing up at this march. I’m not going to let them go through their pain alone. I’m going to stay with them, even if it means walking in a march whose premise I fundamentally disagree with. I will march because I’m not here for BLM, I’m here for these my sheep and I can’t lead them to a more constructive response if they don’t know that I love them enough to do something out of my comfort zone with them.”

We learned that principle not just from the Lord Jesus, who incarnated the Father’s love to us in the midst of a corrupted world. We also learned it from another key leader in our church and community who happens to be black. As a judge, he reviewed the Michael Brown case in exhaustive detail and concluded that the police officer did exactly the right thing against a criminal who was attacking him. He realized from the record of the case that Michael Brown never said, “Hands up! Don’t shoot.” He was trying to kill the officer.

Yet, there was another set of “facts” being presented, that the report was tainted and misrepresented the officer’s behavior. And there was also another federal report that showed some discrepancies. So the outcry was not just an emotional one, but also built on a distrust of the “facts” provided, though the “hands up, don’t shoot” theory was clearly debunked.

In his initial conversations with other African-American leaders, this judge was criticized as an “Uncle Tom” for “supporting the police.” He was incensed that friends would dismiss him that way until he realized a very important principle.

He said, “I finally understood that folk can’t hear the facts until they know you care. I had to begin with compassion, with understanding, with sympathy for their fear before I could gently lead them to consider the facts of the case.”

On Saturday our pastors had to show they cared in order for us to lead our community—black and white—to consider the facts of what Christians are called to do, say and think in this hour of national crisis.

I’m also glad we marched because of the words of one of the patriarchs of the Presbyterian Church in America, Dr. Carl Ellis:

On one hand, ‘black lives matter’ (all lower case, ‘blm’) is a truth. This truth encompasses the healthy concern for matters that touch black lives—criminal justice reform, racial justice, just policing, better community relations, crime reduction, urban homicide rates, discipleship, mass incarceration, abortion rates, poverty reduction, education, employment, ethnic reconciliation, accurate representation of our history, etc.

On the other hand, ‘Black Lives Matter’ (capitalized, ‘BLM’) is an ideology with clearly stated goals and presuppositions. I would go so far to say that the original ‘BLM’ ideology, which started as a rally cry and grew into an entity, has given rise to a cult with its own doctrines and demands for faith. It now extends beyond the original entity, blending with other belief systems in a syncretistic manner as it exports its own iconography, its own language, and its own heroes for veneration.

Dr. Ellis also happens to be an African-American who has personally experienced some of the worst of America’s racist history, while remaining anchored in the love of the gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in inerrant Scripture. His thoughts on this matter then, powerfully inform my perspective.

I’m glad we marched as an expression of loving commitment to a truth that black lives matter. But I’m also glad we marched so that from the inside we can explain why we will not in the future march with Black Lives Matter. Rather, we will continue to give ourselves to efforts that contribute to the flourishing of black lives.

I wish we hadn’t marched because of other words from the same man. Dr. Ellis delineates the tenets of this new religion that has become captivating to some Christians:

Honestly, I am more concerned about this syncretistic subculture than I am about the original “BLM.”  It is an infection that is finding its way into Christian communities.  Some things I have observed about this subculture among Christians:

  1. It comes dangerously close at times to binding consciences by conflating holiness or true Christianity with grievance on the singular issue of police brutality as defined by “BLM.”
  2. It flirts with binding consciences by subtly emphasizing public proclamation of commitment to “BLM” as evidence of commitment to black people—ignoring the myriad of other issues that Christians might be addressing in their own personal and cultural spheres.
  3. It borrows a language of exclusivity that suggests some Christians enjoy a deeper knowledge of reality than others (e.g., ‘woke’ vs. ‘not woke,’ commonly accepted by many in the movement for Black lives as an ‘existential state of being’).  This transfers into the experiential, as when a Christian ‘gets woke,’ one is now an acceptable part of a spiritual elite.  This kind of language unwittingly draws unnecessary dividing lines in the Body that Christ died to unify.

I question the underpinnings of such language; it creates division based on a temporal standard for inclusion. Those within the Body who express concern or disagreement with this doctrinaire approach, or who lack public displays of support for the ‘BLM’ movement, can have their authenticity questioned, be rejected, or ostracized. Surely, just policing is a legitimate pursuit for the Christian activist. However, it almost seems that for some, advocacy for just policing alone is becoming the Gospel, and awareness of the issue its Pentecost.

Others have already pointed out that ‘BLM,’ the entity holds presuppositions regarding human flourishing that are at odds with much of biblical truth. In our land of free thought and speech, it is their Constitutional right to hold these beliefs. Their de-centralized form of leadership, however, has opened the movement to chaos and uncontrolled rogues who aim to dehumanize others under their banner, even at the most peaceful of protests. Couple this deficiency in the leadership’s structure with their presuppositions of what constitutes human flourishing, and the Christian is presented with an obvious dilemma that cannot be glossed over with persuasive, yet simplistic pleas for “solidarity around a common cause.”

It has become increasingly apparent that the differences between these two—‘blm’ and ‘BLM’—do not co-exist as ‘tension to be embraced,’ as it is touted by staunch ‘BLM’ advocates in the Body of Christ. Rather, it seems for a number of Christians, the two are incompatible and for some, the two present an irreconcilable confusion.  These concerned brothers and sisters should not be judged or marginalized for the courage of their convictions.

I am deeply conflicted over these issues. I’m sure I am not alone. These are issues that deal with men and women created in the image of God, and that alone makes them important.

It is clear from our attempts at entering into this important issue in a helpful way that it is no easy task and will certainly not be received well on all sides – that is the nature of conflict. Therefore, it is important to hold to a few guiding truths as we continue to move forward into this uncertain landscape, still trying desperately to bring vestiges of the hope we profess in Christ Jesus.

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